Episode 14: Pope Inncocent ignores King John, appoints Langton as archbishop

Stephen Langton is consecrated archbishop of Canterbury, and King John and Pope Innocent declare war on one another.

Stephen Langton was born in about 1150 to 1160 at Langton-by-Wragby, Lincolnshire, where is father was lord of the manor and lived in a moated farmhouse. Langton was English and a noted scholar, training in Paris with Lothaire, who would become Pope Innocent III. He is believed to have arranged the chapters of the Bible into their present order.

Many of his sermons and other treatises survive. King John reminded the monks at Canterbury that they had, first, elected the sub-prior without his consent, and to paliate his anger they had subsequently set that election aside and nominated John de Gray, bishop of Norwich.

He then paid their expenses to travel to Rome where they were expected to stand by their decision and to obtain de Gray's confirmation as archbishop, but:

'to complete their iniquity, 'they had (at Rome) elected Stephen Langton, (the king's) open enemy, and had obtained his consecration to the archbishopric.'John expelled all the monks from Canterbury, and declared anyone who supported Langton a public enemy, writing to Pope Innocent that the Holy Father had, disgracefully annulled the election of the bishop of Norwich and... consectrated, as archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, a man altogether unknown to him, and who had been for a long time familiar with his declared enemies in the French kingdom.

John kept back his final sanctions to the end of the letter - the bottom line - saying that he would prevent all English and other clerics from going to Rome; and that he would stop the flow of English money to papal coffers. Legate John of Ferentino had recently collected an undeclared sum, which he shipped back to Rome, as we noted in the last Episode. He would use such money in future to defend England against its enemies, by which he meant Philip II of France.

King John saw the appointment of top prelates as one of the privileges of his crown, and the banning of visits to Rome from England ended appeals to the Eternal City for a short time.

All of this would be too much for the English of the early thirteenth century, devoted as they were to Roman Christianity, but John's action was a foretaste of things to come in about a hundred and fifty years, when, without much bidding by King Edward III, in the 1350s, Parliament first legislated against what was known as Praemunire, the referral of religious cases to Rome from England.

The export of English capital and the transfer of high religious matters had been recognized as political matters by the fourteenth century. Throughout Anlgo-Saxon and Norman times, kings had nominated prelates, or had agreed in advance with a pope the translation of an individual.

Even as late as the early sixteenth century, the rich province of Winchester had been held by an absentee Italian as bishop, to whom money was regularly remitted.We might see King John as making a stand against foreign interference in English affairs. He lost, but his successors would not as they chizelled away at Roman privileges until King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Roman Church swept foreigners away forever. As those viewers who also follow my much longer documentary, At the Edge of the World, a history of the Anglo-Saxons, know, I like to propose ideas for today.

There is now much oecumencism in Catholic and Anglican churches, but if anyone believes in one church or the other, that reunion is on the cards after almost five hundred years, they had better think again: the English, indeed, now the British, will not accept it. Most of them, of course, will not even care.

Religion, once always imposed from the top, will never be imposed from the top again in our islands. Was King John the first man at the top to plant this seed unknowingly? In early 1208, Matthew Paris wrote, that all the property of the monks of Canterbury was confiscated, and the king's half-brother Geoffrey, archbishop of York, fled the kingdom for Flanders.

He would die on foreign soil. The pope bombarded John with letters, warning him of the consequences of 'resistance to God and Holy Church', and reminded him how his father King Henry II's throne had been rocked when four king's knights murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170.

Thomas was canonized and the king was whipped by the monks of Canterbury. There would be far worse and that was soon to come.

In early 1208, the pope instructed the three most important bishops who remained - London, Winchester, and Ely - to go to the king and to reason with him and gain the Lord's favour, or Innocent would 'lay his hand upon him.' This would mean an interdict, a terrible order by which all church services and normal sacraments were either suspended, or much curtailed.

On this, Roger of Wendover tells us,the king became nearly mad with rage, and broke forth in words of blasphemy against the pope and his cardinals, swearing by God's teeth, that, if they or any other priests soever presumptiously dared lay his dominions under an interdict, he would immediately send all the prelates of England, clerks as well as ordained persons, to the pope, and confiscate all their property; he added moreover that all clerks found in England or in his other territories he would send to Rome with their eyes plucked out and their noses slit, that by these marks they might be known there from other people.Finding the king obdurate, the three bishops duly published the interdict on 23 March, during Passion Week.

Suddenly, there would be no Ash Wednesday, no day of the Crucifixion, and no Easter Sunday. Confession would continue, as would the viaticum (Holy Communium for the dying), and baptism.

There would be no marriages or funerals and bodies were carried out of towns and villages and buried in ditches or wherever they could.John retaliated by confiscating all church lands and sent his sheriffs to relieve priests and monks of estate management, putting laymen in charge of monasteries and cathedrals, and channelling their revenues to the royal treasury. A scanty allowance was made for food and clothing. Clergy concubines were seized and ransomed at great expense. Some priests found travelling on roads were dragged from their horses, robbed, and inhumanly treated.

A sheriff on the border of Wales asked the government what he was to do with a man who had killed a priest. King John is said to have replied: 'He has killed an enemy of mine, release him and let him go.'

The bishops who had published the interdict, with many others, left England, causing Roger of Wendover to write,

Whilst they (those left behind) were enduring all these evils, the aforesaid prelates were sojourning on the continent, living on all kinds of delicacies instead of placing themselves as a wall for the house of God, as the saying of the Redeemer has it, 'When they saw the wolf coming, they quitted the sheep and left.'

John barred Stephen Langton from coming to England and sensibly the new archbishop stayed a safe distance away in France where growing numbers of prelates joined him. An interdict was imposed over the kingdom which meant, essentially, that the sacraments of the Church were suspended, which included funerals, leaving a lot of bodies unburied.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain